MOUNT HOPE — Clay Ratzlaff has been known to go pretty far afield to find the right parts to restore one of his classic Chevrolets.
“I love the doing … the looking for the parts,” he says.
So when he decided he wanted to build a 1958-59 Chevrolet Apache Fleetside pickup, it came as a pleasant surprise when he spotted one that was almost in his backyard.
“It was only three miles from here as the crow flies,” he recalled. “It was stuck behind a big old 18-wheeler … in a rural salvage yard.
“It was not much to look at, but it had all the right stuff still on it … Fleetside short bed with all the correct stainless trim on the cab and bed. I trailered it home for the whopping price of $400 and was not sure it was even restorable.
“It was pretty rusty. I had to cut the bolts off to get it apart. It was terrible to take apart.”
But one of the bigger problems was that the 1959 truck he brought home had the conventional small-windowed cab on it.
“I wasn’t going to build one without the `big window’ in back,” Ratzlaff said.
A devoted Chevy fan, he credits Chevrolet with starting the trend toward stylish pickups, starting with the 1955 Cameo Carrier.
“Prior to 1955 … all pickups were pretty much hard-working basic haulers with little or no charisma,” he said.
Besides the fiberglass Fleetside fenders covering the old exposed stepside fenders, he said, “Styling suddenly became very important, with the sculpturing of the cabs, hood, fenders, windshields and back glass. The glass now was panoramic, wrap-around that conformed to the cab.”
Fortunately, Ratzlaff was able to locate a “big window” cab that was already in primer and only as far away as Valley Center.
“This truck was a two-year run on this style, so it’s really hard to find parts for them,” he said.
With the help of his friend Ray Hall, he tracked down a good set of bed sides and a decent bed for his project.
“I decided to keep the appearance stock on the outside,” he said. That meant retaining the stock steel wheels, Cameo trim rings and mounting a set of genuine bias-ply 7.10x15 Firestone reproduction wide whitewall tires, along with a factory roof visor and a pair of GM-issued combination spotlight/rear view mirrors.
“I always liked the two-tone paint schemes on the Fleetside trucks. I also like the Sierra Gold color on ’56-59 Chevies, so that was the paint scheme,” Ratzlaff said.
For the secondary color, he chose a complementary pearl tan shade, with the final body work done at Lonny Moore’s Collision Repair, where Jason Burnett applied the two-stage paint.
Ratzlaff also decided to go with paint inside the bed of the truck, instead of varnishing the oak bed floor and risking having it yellow or crack in a few years. That approach still lets the grain of the wood show through between the stainless trim strips. He also got rid of the clunky tailgate chains and the stake pockets in the bed tops.
Since the basic truck he started with had been an automatic, he decided to retain the factory steering wheel, column and shifter. That helped make the decision to upgrade the power train with a more modern setup.
“I had a low mileage 1994 Camaro LT1 engine. I decided that would be the way to go,” he said. He added a 700R4 automatic overdrive transmission, which allowed him to use the original mechanical speedometer in the truck.
But he did install the Camaro’s engine/transmission control computer, which required him to study up on shop manuals and design his own wiring harness to mate the older body with the newer components. As a result, all of the original gauges work as they are supposed and the engine bay looks factory-correct.
Ratzlaff added an Old Air heating/air conditioning system to the setup, smoothly incorporating center and corner air vents into the underside of the factory dashboard.
A factory-style bench seat was rebuilt and expertly recovered by Tom Richardson using white vinyl and a copper-colored “waffle” vinyl material like that used in 1956 Nomads and Corvettes. The upper door panels and headliner were treated to the same copper-colored vinyl. Copper-colored Daytona Weave carpet completes the interior.
All told, the project consumed 3 1/2 years of Ratzlaff’s time and talent. The hardest part, he says, was a fight to get a valid title for the truck.
“The 1950s were the golden age of motor cars and trucks, when all manufacturers were apparently having fun,” Ratzlaff says. “I am really glad to have been there through this fantastic decade.”
His finished 1959 Apache Fleetside is rolling proof of his dedication to the era.